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Shakespeare’s Playful Negotiations

By JB Shelton

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As You Like It

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
(Jacques, monologue, Act II : Scene VII)

Life isn’t always a romantic comedy affirming optimism, spousal fidelity and society-sanctioned behavior. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the playfully positive Rosalind and the worldly-wise pessimist Jacques provide unique viewpoints as good triumphs over evil.

At the play’s heart are the dramatic shenanigans of couples in love, separating, being socially tabu for each other, and fleeing scenes of heated arguments. They bicker, banish and battle.

Yes, I realize all these activities remind me of negotiations I’ve held. As I consider the successful ones, I recommend:

  1. Thinking and acting positively
  2. Communicating with opponents with respect and humor, no matter how much we and they differ in background, culture and world views
  3. Remembering we all play different roles at different time and being flexible in getting out points across and accepting our opponents’ points
  4. Taking breaks from discussions when words explode and common sense isn’t common

King Lear

“Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter.
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare.”
(Goneril, Eldest Daughter of King Lear, Act 1: Scene 1)

“Sir, I am made Of the selfsame metal that my sister is.
In my true heart I find she names my very deed of love.”
(Regan, Middle Daughter of King Lear, Act I: Scene 1)

“What shall I speak? Love, and be silent.
Since I am sure my love’s more richer than my tongue.”
(Cordelia, Youngest Daughter of King Lear, Act 1: Scene 1)

We women have been twisting men around our little fingers since Eve met that snake. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the monarch is at the brink of stepping down from the throne and dividing his kingdom equally among his three daughters.

Sisters Goneril and Regan crave his money and power. Throughout the play, they say and do all within their evil little minds to convince dad to hand over the castle keys and the moat passcode.

Cordelia (his favorite) plays the good daughter role, refusing to take part in the exuberant false flatteries spoken by her sisters, hoping Lear will see her true worth and reward her laid-back attitude. One often doesn’t know how the competition will respond. In this case, Lear is so disappointed in her lack of enthusiasm, that he splits the kingdom between Goneril and Regan.

One would think a wise king would have been leery of his daughters’ false flatteries. When I performed Regan on stage, I realized the sisters’ negotiating ploys go far beyond dysfunctional family relationships and provide patterns for modern-day negotiating techniques. Lessons can be learned by carefully reviewing what worked and what backfired.

  1. Insider knowledge
  2. Confidence in a father’s never-ending love (or your competitor’s respect for you)
  3. Flattery, modesty and hubris
  4. Lack of morals
  5. Creative thinking
  6. Willingness to break old and create new rules
  7. Determination to ‘Outwit, Outlast, Outplay’ your competition ala TV’s ‘Survivor’ series
  8. Honesty

You may want to see or read the play, but I warn you, the ending isn’t a happy example of win-win negotiations.

All’s Well That Ends Well

“I am undone: there is no living, none.
If Bertram be away. ‘Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star.
And think to wed it, he is so above me.”
(Helena, Act I: Scene I)

Noble-born, Bertram thinks socially-inferior, albeit passionately infatuated Helena isn’t destined to be his bride. He treats her shabbily, with a pomposity that would discourage a less determined female. She responds by tricking him into getting her pregnant and evoking his wedding vows of love.

As All’s Well That Ends Well ends, the audience (and, I’m certain, Helena) doubt this is the fairy tale ending she connived and cajoled to achieve.

What can negotiators learn from this play?

  1. Think first. Think again. Then speak
  2. Ask for what you want and want what you ask for
  3. Be willing to live with the negotiations’ results, especially if your goals evolved contrary to your best interests
  4. Know it is difficult to change yourself. You cannot change other people
  5. Maintain a healthy sense of self-respect and self-confidence

Troilus and Cressida:
A Final Note from the Bard

“Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
(Cressida’s Soliloquy, Act I: Scene I)

JB Shelton is a journalist based in Raleigh and Oxford, NC. She writes about children growing up and grownups reinventing themselves. JB teaches ‘Reinvent Yourself in Writing’ at Duke University in Durham, NC. You may reach JB by e-mail at [email protected].

Copyright © 2012 JB Shelton
Copyright ©   2012  The Negotiator Magazine
The Negotiator Magazine  (April, 2012)